Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “To be great is to be misunderstood.” On March 22, I truly understood the meaning of this quote when I attended Great White’s 30th anniversary show at the Key Club in Hollywood. You see, growing up, I was a metal maniac who worshiped at the altar of bands like Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. I had always assumed that Great White was just another “hair metal” band from the Sunset Strip. My only real exposure to Great White was when they blew up on MTV in 1989 with their song “Once Bitten Twice Shy” and, to be honest, I just wasn’t into it.
Walking into the Key Club last month, I decided to keep an open mind though I wasn’t really sure if I would be able to. Ninety minutes later, I felt like it was May of 1971 and I was walking out of New York City’s Fillmore East after watching Humble Pie. What I heard caught me by complete surprise. I was overwhelmed by a hard-hitting electric blues performance from a band of talented musicians. Everything I thought I knew about Great White was completely wrong. After the show, I had the opportunity to sit down with Great White’s guitarist Mark Kendall and vocalist Terry Ilous to discuss music and the current wave of excitement that has enveloped the band.
I first sat down with Mark Kendall who had blown me away with his guitar playing. Mark plays with the passion and fury of blues greats such as Mike Bloomfield and Albert King. I was impressed with his seemingly effortless guitar playing and couldn’t wait to pick his brain to see what makes him tick. Mark Kendall started playing guitar at the age of fourteen in a band that played Santana covers. His earliest influences were players like Ritchie Blackmore, Ronnie Montrose, Rory Gallagher and Johnny Winter. Mark is a guitarist of supreme craftsmanship deep rooted in the blues and hard rock. Mark said that he has always felt that Great White has a hard rocking blues base with heavy riffs. He likened their sound as feeling like Bad Company with a twist. When I asked about their new album Elation, Mark was particularly proud of a new song called “Hard to Say Goodbye,” which he described as a ballad with a blues/gospel vibe that makes you feel really good. Mark is the first to admit that he’s as much of a fan as a musician. Mark loves hearing stories from the fans and hearing how his songs have inspired them or gotten them through tough times. His passion for what he does is absolutely genuine and anyone who has watched Mark play can no doubt attest to this.
I spoke to Terry next. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought he was 19 years old. Terry bounces around the stage with as much energy as a comet and his stage presence is positively commanding. Having Terry in the band is truly a blessing because he’s not only an amazing performer with a fantastic vocal range, but he’s a writer as well. Terry grew up in Europe, primarily Spain and England. Legendary soul singers from America such as Sam Cooke and Otis Redding influenced him from a very early age. Singers like Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler taught him about charisma and the importance of maintaining that kid like energy and smile, which Terry did to fine effect Thursday night. Terry learned to play Spanish guitar growing up by listening to Flamenco music. Flamenco is one of the most technically demanding styles of music to play and this lends credence to what an accomplished musician Terry is. Terry’s vocal influences are quite diverse. Singers from Rob Halford to Teddy Pendergrass have had an influence on him and his vocal range seems to know no limits. Much like Mark, Terry is extremely proficient in his knowledge of music. After speaking with Mark and watching Great White it is quite apparent that Terry has brought a new level of excitement to the band.
Guitarist/keyboardist Michael Lardie, bassist Scott Snyder and drummer Audie Desbrow round out the Great White line up. What I saw on Thursday night was completely unexpected. These five musicians come together and give the listener an incredible ride through the blues sprinkled with a good dose of hard rock. Great White can hold their own with bands like The Allman Bros. Band or ZZ Top any night of the week. It’s not often that I’m completely caught off guard by a band and I’m excited to say that I have witnessed the birth of something new, something different and, most importantly, something real. It’s been thirty years and these guys are barely hitting their peak. When Elation hits the stores in May listeners can expect a Great White like they’ve never heard before. If Elation is anything like the live show I heard on Thursday then this promises to be an album full of inspired songs written by a band that is as excited as they were thirty years ago when they were just starting out.
Since that fateful Thursday night, I find myself digging into my record collection and listening to my old blues albums while I eagerly await the release of what will surely be one of the most anticipated albums to come out in 2012. This is a band that is focused on the future and I’m more than happy to go along for the ride on this new and exciting chapter in the history of one of rock’s most misunderstood bands. This is pulsating music soaked in the blues and, if you’ve been foolish like I was and had written Great White off as just another “hair metal” band, then you’re missing out on something special.